Suicide Kings is the 20th book in the Wild Cards universe. As one might imagine, there is a ton of baggage associated with being a part of long-running series. Fortunately, it is only the third book in the "reboot" of the series by Tor. Frankly, few of the characters in the new books can live up to the older ones, the ones who rarely appear in the current stories. Nonetheless, Suicide Kings is the final book in the first arc, a sound conclusion to a trilogy that make the shared universe accessible to readers who don't have the time or interest for the other 18 books.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Wild Cards universe was that it did not start out contemporary with our own—books published in the 80s were about an alternate universe set in the 40s. This allowed the writers to expand on the alternity of the setting and the readers to revel in the historic changes: Castro pitching in major league baseball instead of ruling Cuba, for instance. But with the reboot, the books are firmly placed in the present, giving the writers a soap box from which to preach to their audience. And Suicide Kings is the most preachy of the Wild Cards books, dealing as it does with the horrors of children soldiers in Africa, including a postscript by editor George R. R. Martin rallying the readers generically to the cause. Fortunately, the preachiness mostly lurks in the background until that postscript, allowing the general strengths of the Wild Cards books to come to the fore—the characters.
(A quick background for those unfamiliar with the Wild Cards—in the 1930s, an alien race uses the Earth as a proving ground for a virus that has devastating effects upon those that are exposed to it. 99% of those affects draw the "Black Queen" and die immediately in horrific ways as their bodies undergo instantaneous transformation. 90% of those that survive draw the "Joker" and survive their transformations, becoming Escher-like manifestations of randomness: from transparent skin to having a squid's head for one's own to just about anything you could imagine. The remaining survivors draw an "Ace" as their transformations bring them superheroic powers. This setting allows a viable background in which superheroes can exist while also creating tensions that have driven the stories for decades.)
In Suicide Kings, the United Nations has sanctioned an international group of heroes known as The Committee to act in their behalf. The current hot spot is in Africa, where the People's Paradise has garnered support from the descendants of victims of colonization and are expanding across the sub-Sahara and towards what we know as Saudi Arabia. The Middle East is mostly controlled by a Muslim government called the Caliphate who feel they must protect the Muslims in the area that the People's Paradise are moving towards. The People's Paradise is supported by many aces, including The Radical, believed to be the most powerful superhero alive, someone with the powers of Superman and more. And while the People's Paradise espouses goals of equality and modernism for the formerly oppressed, The Radical is becoming unhinged because of a mystery that goes back to the 60s. His actions are becoming more and more violent, and the United Nations is trying to broker a peace agreement between the two sides in part to contain the ravages of the Radical. In an earlier novel, the Committee confronted The Radical and won a minor victory, but the cost of the lead-up to that confrontation and its aftermath was too much, and the Committee has become fractured.
The story follows individual members of The Committee—Wally Gunderson, Rustbelt, and Jerusha Carter, The Gardener—as they try to track down Rustbelt's lost pen pal in the People's Republic. The two make an unlikely team; Wally is a young man from Minnesota, not at all worldly and Jerusha is a savvy young woman of color that is looking for something to set her soul at ease. Wally has no idea of the peril he is walking into, his sole experience of Africa being the Tarzan movies he watched as a child, while Jerusha is all too aware as she takes on the leadership role in their partnership. The Gardener's power to control the growth cycle of all plant life is useful in Africa, while Rustbelt, a huge man with steel for skin and the power to rust any ferrous metals he comes in contact with, generally slows them down.
When they get to the People's Paradise, they find that the supposedly benign president is actually injecting children with the Wild Card virus in order to create his own ace army, thereby killing 99% of those given the virus and then also murdering any child who draws the Joker. The few resulting aces are then indoctrinated into his beliefs and led by The Radical, becoming violent and monstrous killers, weapons whose reach is usually greater than the target they are aimed at. Appalled at what they find and enraged by the discovery that Ally's friend is dead, they begin a crusade across the People's Paradise to put a stop to the slaughter.
Other threads wind about his central plot: an ace detective trying to figure out the mystery of The Radical, another ace having visions of a young child pleading for help in the People's Paradise, and a third ace using his special abilities to plot the downfall of the People's Paradise. As one might expect, all of these threads get wound together by the end of Suicide Kings, and a good bit of the draw of the story is how they are all brought together. Each character's story has been written by a different author, but Martin's firm hand as an editor makes the transitions between the segments fairly painless-it would be easy to imagine them all being written by the same author.
The Wild Cards books do not pretend to any sort of literary greatness, but their strength truly is in the characters and their interaction. Suicide Kings is no exception, featuring interesting studies in the humanity of those with great power, as well as those who have been abused by man and nature in truly horrific ways. The story is also a fun adventure yarn, denser than what might expect from stories based on comic book fare but not so deep as to lose readers. In other words, it's popcorn fare, escapism ratcheted up to superhero proportions. Suicide Kings may be penetrable if you've not read any of the other books, but it really does act as the third part of an arc and I would recommend starting with those first. And remember, the Wild Cards are soon to be a major motion picture, so you could impress your friends with inordinate geeky knowledge when the movie comes out.